Powerful Perennials – Top 10

What are powerful perennials? These are perennial flowers that rock the garden each season. They are long blooming, long lasting, long lived, and good for pollinators. Picking a top 10 is the hardest part, because there are a lot of powerful perennials to choose from. What is it that gardeners want in their gardens? Hopefully, it is diversity; a lot of flowers and other plants working together. But often, it is a few perennials that they can plant once and then expect them to live for a long time, all while providing beauty and durability. And they need to be low maintenance.

Some of the attributes I look for when adding perennials to my garden are length of bloom time, flower color, host plant likeliness, lifetime expectancy, and maintenance. How much work does it take to care for it? Most perennials just need to be cut back in the spring or fall, with no other maintenance needed. But some do need more care, such as salvia, larger catmints, and daylilies. And some have more pest problems. Powerful perennials have all these positive attributes and maybe more.

Who Makes the List of Powerful Perennials

After much deliberation on the perennials that are not only good for gardens, but have most of the attributes desired, my top 10 powerful perennials are sun lovers. That is expected, mainly because shade limits the flower potential of perennials. And many of our favorite shade perennials are subject to things like root rot, slugs, and snails. I will go over each one individually, but here is the list.

  1. Ornamental Onion
  2. False Indigo
  3. Butterfly Milkweed
  4. Rattlesnake Master
  5. False Sunflower
  6. Slender Mountain Mint
  7. Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’
  8. Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  9. Culver’s Root
  10. Giant Goldenrod

Now, I want to warn you, because some of these are not very well behaved in the garden. In other words, they spread, either by seed or root, through the garden. Of all of these, the ones that move the least are butterfly milkweed, baptisia, and Culver’s root.

Ornamental Onion – Allium species – Liliaceae Family

Now the ornamental onions include a wide range of perennial onions. But I consider the newer ornamental onions such as ‘Millenium’ and ‘Serendipity’ as the powerful perennials of this list. There are several other varieties which also fall under this heading, but I am not including the giant alliums of fall planted bulbs.

What I like best about the ornamental onions is their long bloom times. In my backyard. ‘Millenium’ blooms continuously from late July into September. And there are other cultivars that fill the gaps, making continuous bloom of alliums from June to November.

Also, they are fairly tidy, though they do reseed a bit into the garden. I use them mainly for borders, only cutting them back in late winter. They do not have any pest problems, though they are literally covered in pollinators when blooming.

Pollinator Partnerships

While ornamental onions have few if any pests (not even deer or rabbits eat them), there are a lot of pollinators which visit the long blooming flowers. I have documented many insects on them.

  • Swallowtail butterflies
  • Skippers
  • Brushfooted butterflies
  • Fritillary butterflies
  • Sulphur butterflies
  • Bumblebees
  • Sweat bees
  • Mining bees
  • Honeybees
  • Thread-waisted wasps
  • Digger wasps
  • Square-headed wasps
  • Flower flies
  • Syrphid flies
  • Tachinid flies
  • Soldier beetles

Cultivars I Love

  • Bubble Bath is the first to bloom. It has a light lavender or pale purple coloring, and the blossoms are large, up to 3 inches in diameter. It blooms in early July.
  • Millenium was the first ornamental onion I planted. With division, I now have over 200 plants/ It starts blooming in July and wraps up in September, overlapping some other varieties. The flowers are 2 inches in diameter and pink.
  • Lavender Bubbles is a very dark purple variety, which starts blooming in August and continues into September, sometimes October. The flowers are 2 inches in diameter.
  • Medusa is a taller variety, up to 18 inches tall. The flowers are pink and about half the size of Millenium. It blooms at the same time as Millenium.
  • Mongolian Gem is the only close to white cultivar currently, but I think there is a new one coming in 2024 or 2025. Anyways, it is a taller variety, growing up to 20 inches and floppy. Flowers are white and it blooms in July.
powerful perennials - ornamental onion

False Indigo – Baptisia species – Fabaceae Family

I just call them baptisia. There are many wonderful cultivars of these powerful perennials. I have been collecting baptisia cultivars since 2013, when I bough my first one, Twilite ‘Prairieblues’. And baptisia is not a good candidate for transplanting, because the root system is deep, but I was able to transplant ‘Prairieblues’ from one garden to another when my wife and I moved.

One of the reasons that baptisia are powerful perennials is because of their long bloom times. In May, you will see the tall spikes of the upright baptisia shining forth from the leaves. Many of these plants become quite massive, 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. And they come in a broad range of colors, and multi-colors. Bloom time is 3 to 6 weeks. Also, they make great cut flowers, which is one of the reasons I grow so many of them. I thing I was up to 11 cultivars at last count.

The baptisias are also one of the easiest to care for perennials in the landscape. Besides being very long-lived, they are a legume and produce their own nitrogen with the help of a symbiotic bacteria. They have very few pests and no diseases in the Central Great Plains. The few butterflies and moths that use it as a host plant are not pests in my book, but great additions to them. Maintenance is as simple as knocking the stems down in early spring, no cutting required.

Pollinator Partnerships

The flowers of false indigo are difficult to open for many pollinators, yet I often see bumblebees, tiger swallowtails, and silver spotted skippers on them. And despite the certainty of research that says the cultivars are less frequented by pollinators, I see many bumblebees on my various cultivars.

Insects which use these powerful perennials as a host plant include the following.

  • Cloudless sulphur butterfly
  • Clouded sulphur butterfly
  • Silver spotted skipper
  • Genista broom moth
  • Black spotted prominent moth
  • Wild indigo duskywing skipper
  • Indigo stem borer moth
  • Faint spotted palthis moth
pollinators of baptisia

Cultivars I Love

It is hard to have a favorite cultivar because there are so many now. My favorite would probably be from the Twilite Series, ‘Lunar Eclipse’, which has purple and white flowers on the same stalk. But there are so many others to pick from.

baptisia cultivars

Butterfly Milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa – Apocynaceae Family

I can hardly think of a plant which is more suited to a list of powerful perennials. Butterfly milkweed shines in full sun to part shade gardens, from Canada to Mexico and from the East Coast to Arizona. Bloom times vary in each location. But in the Central Great Plains, you can expect it to bloom from late May into August, and sometimes longer. Older plants develop a layered or “stacked” look that gives them depth. And they are long lived.

Flower color of butterfly milkweed can be red, yellow, or orange. Orange is the most common though. And it is a good thing, for orange is a difficult color to get in the garden. Butterfly milkweed is tough, only sometimes getting powdery mildew. It is susceptible to root rot, if it is planted in a wet location. As a host plant for monarch butterflies, it can become ragged when the caterpillars are feeding. It is largely agreed that monarchs prefer other milkweeds to this one, but that is not what I see in my garden. I have counted as many as 13 caterpillars on one plant!

And of all the milkweeds, this one is the most well-behaved. It does not send out long runners or rhizomes, and it rarely sets viable seeds. Prune it to the ground in late winter or early spring and maintenance is done.

Pollinator Partnerships

During its long bloom time, butterfly milkweed is covered by a wide range of insects. They are both pollinating and gathering nectar from the flowers. During that time, monarch butterflies, milkweed tussock moths, and cycnia moths are using it as a host plant.

The following insect list includes only some of the more common pollinators seen.

  • Great spangled fritillary butterfly
  • Sulphur butterflies
  • Crescent butterflies
  • Leafcutter bees
  • Sweat bees
  • Resin bees
  • Carpenter bees
  • Honeybees
  • Bumblebees
  • Thread-waisted wasps
  • Potter wasps
  • Cuckoo bees
  • Ants
  • Soldier beetles
  • Regal Fritillary butterfly
  • Banded Hairstreak butterfly
  • Coral hairstreak butterfly
  • Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly
butterfly milkweed powerful perennials

Rattlesnake Master – Eryngium yuccafolium – Apiaceae Family

Believe it or not, this is a large member of the carrot family. But it looks nothing like a carrot. The plant is large, up to 4 feet tall when blooming, with slender, yucca-like leaves that have sharp edges, especially when dry. The stems, which are hollow, are a great place for nesting bees and other stem-boring insects. Flowers are white and appear spiky, but are attractive to a wide range of pollinators.

Rattlesnake master

is long lived and can be mowed or cut for hay in a prairie with no ill effects. I have observed this in a prairie remnant near my house for the last 10 years. Native, it grows primarily in the Eastern Great Plains to the East Coast, preferring wet ditches or seeps, prairies, and wet glades. But it is very drought tolerant and reliable in a hot site.

Maintenance can be tricky with the sharp leaves, but I like to cut the stalk down in spring and remove to a brush pile, then mow or burn off the leaves. It is a perfect plant for a Meadow Garden or Monarch Waystation, as long a burning is a possibility. The leaves can be cut back with a blade on a string trimmer, but hedge trimmers are not very effective.

Pollinator Partnerships

Not many insects use it as a host plant, but a large number of bees, wasps, and butterflies pollinate and gather nectar on the blooms. Bees and other stem-borers use the hollow stems.

  • Eryngium stem borer moth
  • Wedge-shaped beetles
  • Longhorned beetles
  • Soldier beetles
  • Soldier flies
  • Bumblebees
  • Various butterflies
  • Paper wasps
  • Thread-waisted wasps
  • Great golden digger wasp
  • Potter wasps
  • Beetle wasps
  • Spider wasps
rattlesnake master

False Sunflower – Heliopsis helianthoides – Asteraceae Family

Our first member of the aster family on the list of powerful perennials, false sunflower, aka oxeye sunflower, is a very long blooming perennial. But it can be weedy in typical garden setting of not enough plants and too much mulch. Normal blooming times vary across its native range, which is from the front range of the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Atlantic. In my experience in the Central Great Plains, false sunflower blooms from May to September, and the dried spent flowers are just as showy as the fresh ones.

False sunflower can be weedy, from its abundance of seeds which are easily dispersed when then the plant stems fall over or are moved by animal feeders. The plants grow 2 to 4 feet tall and wide, sometimes larger. They can take full to part sun, and are very tolerant of many soils, except waterlogged. Easy to grow, there are variety of new cultivars which are less weedy and are a great addition to the garden. Cut the old stems back to the ground in late winter or early spring.

Pollinator Partnerships

There is a wide range of insects which pollinate the compound flowers of members of the Aster Family. Several species of moths may use it as a host plant, but the rigid sunflower borer is the most common, utilizing the hollow stems. Several moths, including camouflaged loopers, feed on the flowers. Aphids can be an issue in part shade and if plants which attract aphid feeders are not complimenting it. Pollinators include the following:

  • Crescent butterflies
  • Ground beetles
  • Soldier beetles
  • Bee flies
  • Syrphid flies
  • Leafcutter bees
  • Longhorned bees
  • Sweat bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Braconid wasps
  • Clearwing moths

Cultivars I Love

With new cultivars available, why would you not put a false sunflower in your garden? These perennials are tough and the flowers are brightly colored thanks to breeding programs.

heliopsis is a powerful perennials

Slender Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum tenuifolium – Laminaceae Family

It was difficult for me to pick the best of the mints for the powerful perennials list. But slender mountain mint is less aggressive than blunt mountain mint (P. muticum), and more tolerant of dry conditions that Virginia mountain mint. That is why I chose this one. As a rule, blunt mountain mint actually blooms longer, but the flowers on slender mountain mint are larger and a wider range of pollinators visit them.

Mints in general have few is any diseases or pests. The oils in them deter most would-be pests, including deer and rabbits, away. And you can use them in tea. I like to mix mountain mint and spearmint together for tea through the summer months when I can harvest fresh leaves daily. I have found a couple of moths which use them as a host plant, but that is an exception. Most insects just prefer the flowers.

They bloom from late June to August, sometimes into September. While the plants spread by rhizomes, they are not aggressive, and will not take over like peppermint or spearmint. In the late fall or early spring cut the plants at ground with shears, or burn the plant off if possible.

Pollinator Partnerships

So far in my experience, I have come across 8 moths which use various members of the mint family as host plants, mostly eating the leaves. But the following are pollinators and nectar gatherers of the flowers. Beneficials are highly attracted to members of the mint family, so plant mountain mint near vegetable and flower gardens.

  • Longhorned bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Resin bees
  • Sweat bees
  • Bee wolves
  • Thyanid wasps
  • Digger wasps
  • Cuckoo wasps
  • Paper wasps
  • Potter wasps
  • Soldier flies
  • Syrphid flies
  • Wedge-Shaped beetles
  • Ants
  • Small butterflies
  • Some moths
powerful perennials - mountain mint

Rudbeckia American Gold Rush – Rudbeckia hybrid cultivar – Asteraceae Family

American Gold Rush I think, will become a household name in the nursery trade, as it replaces the well known and loved Goldsturm rudbeckia. In comparison, AGR far outperforms Goldsturm. Not only does it have better disease resistance, but it also blooms a lot longer! Ever since American Gold Rush arrived on the scene, I have been watching it in the landscape, both at home and at clients’. It blooms reliably from June to September, and would bloom longer in irrigated or wet falls, I think. I do not irrigate at home, so it gets stressed in late summer. But the blooms go on.

The plant itself is compact, growing 1 to 2 feet tall and up to 20 inches wide. However, it does reseed somewhat easily, making it spread quickly through the garden. From one original plant, I now have 7 over a 3 year period. But I like that, because I can share with friends. Maintenance is a simple as cutting the stems back in late fall or early spring.

Pollinator Partnerships

Pollinators of American Gold Rush include a variety of insects, but less than most of the other members of the Aster Family. This seems to be the case with Rudbeckia is general. However, they are great for long lasting blooms. Silvery checkerspot butterflies, camouflaged loopers, and various other moths use Rudbeckia as a host plant.

  • Longhorned bees
  • Leafcutter bees
  • Cuckoo bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Mining Bees
  • Green sweat bees
  • Carpenter bees
  • Blister beetles
  • Soldier beetles
  • Bee flies
  • Syrphid flies
  • Some small butterflies
American Gold rush

Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ – Symphyotrichum oblongifolium – Asteraceae Family

Although there are several cultivars of aromatic aster available, Raydon’s Favorite is also my favorite. I first acquired this cultivar from Blue Bird Nursery while at a trade show in Iowa. For long bloom times, it is hard to beat aromatic aster. It can be found growing wild primarily through the Great Plains and along the Appalachian mountains.

In my garden I have seen blooms on my Raydon’s Favorite as early as mid July, but more commonly it starts in late August. The flowers continuously bloom from August to November, and even into December, making it one of the most powerful perennials. The mere fact that it blooms well after a hard freeze here in Northeast Kansas is perhaps the best selling point. Who would not want a perennial pollinator plant that blooms past freezes? In 2023, we had a drop down to 11 degrees in late October and my aromatic asters just laughed at it.

They do reseed, but in the Meadow Garden or Monarch Waystation, they mix well with other perennials and grasses. Flower colors can be purple, pale purple-blue, or pink. The plants themselves grow 30 inches tall by 36 to 42 inches wide. I like to cut the plants down in late winter with shears.

Pollinator Partnerships

Asters are known to be host plants for a variety of moths and some butterflies as well. Because of its long bloom time, aromatic aster gets visited buy a wide range of pollen and nectar seeking insects, including honeybees. The first list includes insects which use it as a host plant.

  • Pearl Crescent butterfly
  • Wavy-lined Emerald moth
  • Silvery checkerspot butterfly
  • Soft-lined Wave moth
  • Arcigera flower moth
  • Zebra conchylodes moth
  • Orange-dotted dichomeris moth
  • Two-spotted dichomeris moth
  • Toothed dichomeris moth
  • Pale-banded dart moth

The following includes some of the more common pollinators which frequent the flowers of aromatic aster.

  • Bumblebees
  • Cuckoo bees
  • Mining bees
  • Leafcutter bees
  • Carpenter bees
  • Small resin bees
  • Sweat bees
  • Longhorned bees
  • Syrphid flies
  • Bee flies
  • Pearl crescent butterflies
  • Silvery checkerspot butterflies
  • Buckeye butterfly
  • Soldier beetles
  • Marine blue butterfly
  • Various other small butterflies
aromatic aster

Culver’s Root – Veronicastrum virginicum – Plantaginaceae Family

This is one of my all-time favorite powerful perennials. While Culver’s root does not have long bloom time, at least not as long as some of the other perennials, it is a flower powerhouse and tough as nails to boot. When it comes to hardiness, it is hard to beat Culver’s root. Native to about half of North America, Culver’s root can be found in sun and part shade, and wet or dry areas. It is most common in wet prairies.

Culver’s root grows 3 to 5 feet tall and spreads slowly with rhizomes. Flowers are usually white, but sometimes purple. They are upright and the plant has beautiful yellow fall color. Flowers typically bloom from July to September. Just cut it down in late winter and maintenance is done!

Pollinator Partnerships

Only a couple of moths are known to use Culver’s root as a host plant, but a variety of insects, especially beneficials visit the flowers in late summer.

  • Leafcutter bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Rusty-patched Bumblebee
  • Sweat bees
  • Longhorned bees
  • Thread-waisted wasps
  • Digger wasps
  • Potter wasps
  • Thick-headed flies
  • Syrphid flies
  • Tachinid flies
  • Soldier beetles
  • Variou butterflies
Culver's root

Giant Goldenrod – Solidago gigantea – Asteraceae Family

Common from the Rocky Mountains eastward, giant goldenrod is one of the best powerful perennials. One of the first of the many goldenrods to bloom, giant goldenrod grows 3 to 6 feet tall and prefers ditches, low lying areas, and pond/stream banks. Maybe that is why I am so partial to this on. It grows in my ditch and along the banks of the lake I love. Most of the goldenrods bloom in succession. As one stops another starts. If you plan your garden right, you can have a succession of goldenrod blooming from August to November.

Goldenrods do get some leaf spots, various leaf miners, galls, and mildews, but they are tough enough to rarely be affected. I love finding galls on my goldenrods, because that is a sign of a healthy ecosystem at work. There are also a variety of insects which utilize it as a host plant, as well as many pollinators. Goldenrod is not wind-pollinated like ragweed, so do not worry about the golden yellow pollen if you suffer from allergies.

Just like Culver’s root and asters, I like to cut down the stems of goldenrods in late winter and remove them to a brush pile for the overwintering insects. While there are some cultivars of other goldenrods, giant goldenrod has no named cultivars yet.

Pollinator Partnerships

Insects that use giant goldenrod as a host plant include a variety of moths and some butterflies. Mining bees and other stem borers use the stems for nesting and overwintering. The following list includes insects which use it as a host plant.

  • Brown-hooded owlet moth
  • Bilobed dichomeris moth
  • Twirler moth
  • Silvery checkerspot butterfly
  • Gray hairstreak butterfly
  • Dainty sulphur butterfly
  • Goldenrod leaffolder moth
  • Smoky-striped eucosma moth
  • Indented dichomeris moth
  • Cynical Quaker moth
  • Goldenrod gall moth
  • Goldenrod gall fly
  • Wavy-lined emerald moth
  • Constricted Sonia moth

The following list includes some, but not all of the many pollinators of goldenrod. It hard to believe how many species attend to this plant.

  • Sweat bees
  • Mining bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Mason wasps
  • Thread-waisted wasps
  • Paper wasps
  • Thyanid wasps
  • Syrphid flies
  • Bee flies
  • Soldier beetles
  • Various butterflies
  • Longhorned beetles
powerful perennials - goldenrod

Other Powerful Perennials

There are quite a number of perennials which did not make the top 10 list. Be sure to add some of these to your garden as well. Remember, the greater the diversity of plant species in the garden, the greater the diversity of insects, animals, and birds. And the more diverse the garden is, the better it will be able to withstand attacks from pests, both native and invasive.

Conclusion

Powerful perennials belong in every garden, as long as you have the space for them. They not only provide long flower power, they are long lived, and produce a lot of pollen and nectar for various insects. Add them to the garden whenever possible

Happy planting!

author of powerful perennials

One thought on “Powerful Perennials – Top 10

  1. This article was so helpful as I start to plan my own Kansas garden! The yard in our new house is a barren wasteland – I’m so looking forward to bringing it to life using this guide.

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